Ask the pilot

As if long delays and security lines weren't enough to worry about during Thanksgiving travel, now we have to add running out of fuel to the list?

Published November 22, 2007 11:35AM (EST)

Thanksgiving is about many things. But for those planning to fly, it's mostly about long lines, heavy crowds, and lots and lots of waiting -- your hair turning gray in the security line while the meatlike waft of Chick-fil-A mixes with the smell of burning kerosene from idling jets.

So far this year, industry load factors -- that is, the percentage of seats occupied -- have been averaging around 80 percent. On Wednesday and Sunday, bookends of what is historically the year's busiest five-day stretch, they'll be close to 100 percent. According to the Air Transport Association, the country's carriers can expect to transport 27 million this holiday period -- a 4 percent increase over last year. Although the number of flights will be roughly the same as during any other week, those maxed-out cabins will make a bad situation worse, bogging things down from the inside. You can expect security lines to be particularly excruciating, burdened by the sudden presence of occasional-flier Americans unfamiliar with the liquids/gels/laptops/jackets/shoes ballet. Throw in some foul weather, and terminals could get ugly.

In preparation for the rush, George W. Bush has responded with one of the more puzzling and pointless gestures of his presidency. Our Dear Leader has authorized the civilian use of several air corridors, located off the Eastern seaboard, that are usually restricted to military operations. Eagerly described by Fox News as a "gift to the American people," this initiative will have roughly the same effect as, say, organizing a group prayer or rubbing a plastic airplane for good luck. Even if the number of flights is expected to swell significantly, which it's not, the benefits will be minimal.

I've been writing about the delays issue, on and off, since early last summer, but allow me to reiterate: There is not, despite what the media, industry trade groups and certain politicians continue to assert, an airspace crisis in this country. More correctly, there is a ground space crisis. Specifically, the logjam is localized in and around airports themselves, not high overhead. You can only slot so many aircraft into and out of an airport; freeing up chunks of airspace does little good when aprons, taxiways and runways are at maximum saturation. It was not an airspace issue that led to that two-hour taxi-in at JFK that I described in this space a few weeks ago; it was an airport stuffed to capacity -- and too much of that stuffing, Thanksgiving pun intended, comes in the form of regional jets. If the president wants to see additional recommendations on how not to reduce flight delays, I invite him to click here.

If the prospect of lengthy delays doesn't have you stressed enough, the media has been doing its part to make sure you're equally worried about crashing. Last week, broadcasts were abuzz with the story of two airliners, one flown by Midwest Airlines, the other by United Express, involved in a near-miss at 25,000 feet over Indiana. The exact cause of the incident is not yet known. Meanwhile, it would have been helpful had reporters pointed out that we're living amid the safest-ever stretch in commercial aviation history, or that the occasional near-miss ought to be expected in a system than handles upward of 30,000 departures daily. But mostly we heard only shrill commentary and misleading insinuations of widespread danger. A few days later, the FAA released a statement designed to, as one news source put it, "assure the American public that flying remains safe." If you ask me, the fact that there hasn't been a crash involving a major U.S. carrier since 2001, nor a serious midair collision since 1987, ought to be reassurance enough, but seldom are people rational when airplanes are the subject. For the record, the Indiana aircraft weren't as close to hitting each other as most news stories made it seem, and accounts indicate that onboard anti-collision systems gave proper and sufficient alarm.

The science of avoiding collisions was discussed in greater detail here. Or, to learn how a certain hapless pilot nearly got himself killed in a collision, click here.

And don't get me started on the recent ABC News investigation into airlines allegedly cutting back on fuel loads to save money. The report can be summarized in different ways, but the words "alarmist trash" should definitely be included. Investigators seized on the expression "minimum fuel," overheard in conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers. To crews, "minimum fuel" has a very specific definition, but it's not as serious a predicament as the wording makes it sound. Basically, it means that a flight cannot accept any further delay without burning into its required reserve levels. Those reserve levels are unchanged and are not negotiable. Reaching "minimum fuel" is not an emergency, though occasionally crews will declare an emergency in order to receive prompt handling. For passengers, the risk isn't crashing; it's having to divert to an alternate airport sooner than might otherwise be the case.

If you're interested, this column has previously given fuel regulations a good vetting. Try here, here or here.

So, yeah, the news this season is rather frustrating on the whole. But I've saved my favorite target, the Transportation Security Administration, for last. Our TSA minders are geared and ready for the Thanksgiving push, prepping the public for its annual rite of holiday humiliation. New this year is "SimpliFLY," a campaign that asks passengers to reduce clutter in their carry-on bags, generously offering recommendations on how to properly fold and pack your laundry. This, in addition to the "3-1-1" carry-on mantra pertaining to liquids and gels.

On Monday at JFK, while fliers faced 45-minute bottlenecks at the metal detectors, TSA guards had set up a "mobile checkpoint" to scrutinize the luggage of pilots and flight attendants coming and going from the crew lounge.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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